Pilgrimage: the road to Santiago – BBC 2


No, this isn’t about religion: it’s about history and culture.  Honestly!!  I’d always wanted to go to Santiago de Compostela, for historians’ reasons, and I finally made it last summer.  Sadly, due to lack of time off work (not to mention being lazy and unfit!), I didn’t get to do the Camino, the pilgrims’ walk to the Shrine of St James, but the BBC have got seven “celebrities” (we’re not talking A-list here, but anyway!) who are doing the full thing.  I don’t normally watch reality TV, but this is something different.  Oh, and do go to Santiago de Compostela.  It’s a lovely place, and not only because of its historical importance.   They have people playing the bagpipes, because Galicia likes to think of itself as being Celtic.  And they have Torta de Santiago, which is a very nice type of almond cake.  They even give out free samples in the street.  You don’t get that at other “holy” places: I’ve never got over the shock of how much a café in Assisi charged me for a tidgy little piece of “the bread of St Francis”.  And, if you don’t want to talk religion, the locals will be only too pleased to talk to you about Celta Vigo or Deportivo La Coruna.  Or maybe that’s only if you say “Soy de Manchester” 🙂 .  “Eu son de Manchester”, even, in Galician rather than Castilian.

So, what’s the story? Well, St James the Great, one of the Apostles, son of Zebedee (I don’t think they have The Magic Roundabout in Spain, though), is supposed to have travelled to North East Spain during his lifetime, and is supposed to have been buried there.  A hermit in the 9th century AD then found his body – and stars shone overhead, showing him the way to the tomb, hence Compostela – campo stella, field of stars.  The scallop shell became the symbol of Santiago de Compostela and of the Camino because some horseman wanted to accompany the body from the Holy Land to Spain but couldn’t fit on the boat, so shells protected them as they swam all the way.  Or another version is that the body was washed overboard by a storm, and protected by shells.  The BBC didn’t mention those bits, actually: they said that the shells were supposed to indicate that people came to the same point from different directions.  You can get some very nice shell-shaped jewellery there, incidentally: I got some earrings.

The alternative version of events? St James never went anywhere near Spain: he actually went to Caesarea, on what’s now the Israeli coastline, but someone managed to get that mixed up with Caesar Augusta, the Roman name for Zaragoza.  A hermit came across a tomb from Roman times, and, there being rather a lot of issues with Pelagian heretics at the time, the religious and temporal authorities in Galicia decided that finding the remains of one of the Apostles in their back yard would be just the thing to get everyone toeing the line.  And the word “Compostela” probably comes from the same root as, er, compost.  Yep.  The field of stars version’s better, isn’t it?!

Pilgrimages were a big thing in medieval times, partly as a way of getting your sins expiated and partly because as a way of satisfying people’s thirst for travel and adventure, or people’s need to try to find something, or try to get away from something. And that’s still true today, with the Camino – which has become very popular in recent years.  It was pretty much dead in the water – or dead in the mountains – by the 1980s, but it’s a really big thing again now.  OK, there are plenty of people who do it for religious reasons, but I think that a lot of people do it as an adventure, or a challenge, or because they’re looking for something – well, aren’t we all?!  The same with, say, the Inca Trail.  To some extent, it’s part of a general shift in the nature of travel and tourism: many people are now looking for something beyond two weeks lying on a sunbed round the pool.  But this is particularly interesting because it’s a return to something which began to lose popularity nearly half a millennium ago.

Just going back to the subject of pilgrimages, obviously don’t have to be to sites associated with Christianity. The biggest pilgrimage site in the world is Mecca, although unfortunately that’s closed to non-Muslims, and people also visit sites associated with Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and other faiths. And there are plenty of pilgrimage sites.  Lourdes is probably the one that most people would think of, because it’s become seen as a place where sick people can be cured.  And there a lot of others, but they don’t have the international appeal of Santiago de Compostela.  Czestochowa is very Polish, Montserrat is very Catalan, Fatima is very Portuguese … and they don’t have the actual saints’ remains thing going on.  And they’re all, Lourdes included, relatively new, in historical terms.  Canterbury does have both the saint and the longer tradition, but that’s all bound up in English history.  And none of them have anything like the Camino.

The three big, historical, international Christian pilgrimage sites are Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Jerusalem, tragically, has been fought over for centuries.  Rome’s also seen its share of conflict … and Rome’s too much a seat of temporal power to feel really spiritual anyway.  The Iberian peninsula has obviously seen its share of conflict as well, but Galicia was never actually conquered by the Moors – and St James, “Matamoros” (the Moor-Slayer), is supposed to have appeared at the 9th century Battle of Clavijo and led the Christians to victory.  Not very politically correct, these days.  And the battle never even happened, never mind saints who’d been dead for eight hundred years appearing at it, but St James became a big cult hero.  And, for centuries, people in what’s now Spain were made to pay a tax to support the upkeep of Santiago de Compostela cathedral, because of a medieval document which turned out to be a great big whopping forgery.  Fake news is nothing new!

The BBC did not mention any of the fake news stuff.  Well, to be fair, they did mention the Battle of Clavijo, following it up by pointing out that the Camino is now open to people of any faith or none, but they didn’t emphasise what a big deal it was at the time, and they certainly didn’t mention the tax-dodging or the more likely explanation of the origins of the shrine.  Oh well …

Fake news and rip-off taxes aside, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela really did become a big thing. And the Camino, the walk to Santiago de Compostela … I can’t actually think of any other pilgrimage route which is anything like as well-known.  There used to be more of them – there was some sort of campaign a few years ago to draw attention to traditional pilgrimage routes in England, but it largely got ignored! –  but this is the one that’s lasted.  There are shells all over Galicia, and in other parts of northern Spain, in Portugal and in southern France, pointing the way.  And, obviously, hostels sprang up along the way: it was all big business, even though pilgrims are, even now, supposed to get a discount on accommodation and food.  That’s now happened again: the people featured in the BBC 2 programme visited various hostels and refreshment stops, all aimed at pilgrims, including one run by British people – offering cups of tea and chocolate digestives! – and one run by an Australian lady.  It’s unique.  And it’s a medieval tradition reborn as a modern tradition.

Incidentally, whilst the route across the Pyrenees from southern France is the best-known one, there are others. There’s one route which comes from Portugal.  And there’s the route known as “the English route” – which is actually the shortest, yay 🙂 , because, it being rather a long way from our sceptred isle to the Pyrenees, you went by ship to A Coruna (lovely, lovely city, even if people are still harping on about Deportivo beating United in 2001), and walked from there.  Only about 45 miles!   There are various others too – including routes from different parts of Spain, obviously.  However, the route from France is the big one.  It’s also known as the Milky Way, in French, because the stars are supposed to light the way; but that sounds like a chocolate bar.

And you’re actually supposed to go on beyond Santiago de Compostela, to Cab Fisterra, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (not quite the most westerly point, although it was once thought to be).  There’s a nice little marker there, and you get your photo taken by it.  Er, even if you’ve come by coach, like I did.  You are not supposed to take photos of yourself with the statue of St James in Santiago de Compostela – as well, as the actual tomb, there’s a statue, which you hug.  Trying to show respect, I dutifully refrained from taking any statue-hugging selfies, and was not very impressed to see that a lot of people, mostly younger people, were taking photos anyway.  Oh well.  You can but try to do the right thing!

The other big thing at the cathedral is the Botafumeiro. Not, not Botafogo: that’s a Brazilian football team.  The Botafumeiro is a giant swinging thurible (incense holder).  Unfortunately, it doesn’t swing often.  It famously flew out of the window when Catherine of Aragon visited Santiago de Compostela before setting sail for England.  A very bad omen.  It obviously knew something!!  There’ve been a few of them, over time.  The current one’s only about 200 years old.  Napoleon’s troops stole the previous one.  Typical!

Well, who have we got in this? “The lovely” Debbie McGee, who used to be seen as a bit of a joke but has now become something of a spokesperson for people who’ve been widowed and are trying to rebuild their lives.  Heather Small from M People, who’s said that she struggles with organised religion because it lacks inclusivity and has been used to oppress black people.  Neil Morrissey, of Men Behaving Badly fame.  Humanist and comedian Ed Byrne.  And three people I’d honestly never heard of before – Sheffield vicar Kate Bottley, Invictus Games medallist, TV presenter and former soldier J J Chalmers, who was injured in Afghanistan and lost close friends there, and journalist Raphael Rowe, who was horrifically jailed for life for a murder he didn’t commit and served twelve years before being acquitted and freed.

The route goes through some interesting places. The first episode showed us Roncesvalles, as featured in The Song of Roland – which I was forced to read in my first year at university.  It was supposed to get people into medieval history.  It really didn’t.  They’d have been better with Jean Plaidy books (Elizabeth Chadwick was only just getting going then).  But, still, I’d love to see Roncesvalles, and even more so Burgos.  I was hoping that the BBC’d show Burgos, and Leon, but, rather annoyingly, none of the big places have featured.

We’ve seen plenty of smaller stops, though. They’re not actually walking the whole way: they’ve got the bus for parts of it!   Even horses, at one point!  But that’s OK – it’s only the last 100 kilometres that you actually “have” to walk in order to be classed as a bona fide pilgrim.  Complete with a passport with stamps on it.  The programme mentioned that 40% of pilgrims just do the last 100km, but I bet that’s as much to do with lack of time off work as to do with just not wanting to walk the full route.  Having said which, doing the whole lot must be very hard going.  Neil Morrissey and Kate Bottley have done an awful lot of moaning about how physically exacting it is, although Heather Small and Ed Byrne seem to be thoroughly enjoying it, even on days when it’s either been wet or very hot.

So, what have we seen? Pilgrim hostels with dormitories, and people doing the “My name’s X and I’m …” thing over the dining room tables.  And some small churches, and places with other Camino connections, including the highest point of the Camino, where people traditionally leave stones from home.  Kate Bottley said that she was really into doing whatever “the thing” to do at a particular place was, and that’s me as well.  Oh dear, what horrible grammar!!  But, yes – leaving a stone from home at a particular place, or walking barefoot round a particular church, to give two examples from this programme, and knowing that millions of people have done so before you and millions of people will do so after you: I really like that.  And they even got given free wine at one place!  This is what we like.  Free wine.  Free cake.  Maybe not some of those dormitories, though.

I’m not sure exactly what the BBC are getting at with this, though. Sometimes it does seem like a religious programme.  They certainly haven’t shied away from controversy, though: we’ve heard some members of the group talking about how they were put off formal religion by child abuse scandals, racism, feeling that they were brainwashed as children or the arrogance of people who claim that being Christians (and the same could be said of people belonging to any other religion) makes them better than anyone else.  Sometimes it feels a bit Big Brother-ish – no silly “challenges”, but we’ve heard people baring their souls about some very personal experiences.  And I really am quite disappointed that we haven’t seen the big cities and their historical sights: that was my main reason for watching, not to see people washing their pants or putting plasters on their blisters.

The nearest there seems to be to any sort of general theme is whether or not the Camino is still relevant in modern times. That probably depends on what you think the Camino’s about.  Presumably most people are past the idea of thinking that going on a “pilgrimage” means that all your sins will be given.  I’m trying to remember the Jane Eyre quote about that.  I don’t mean that Jane Eyre went on the Camino 🙂 , but Mr Rochester says something about maybe bringing up Adele Varens will expiate all his sins. I don’t think he means it seriously, though!  And going on a long walk is hardly to be compared with taking in a child who would otherwise have been destitute.

But there are other aspects of it too, and they do work from both a medieval viewpoint and a modern viewpoint.  Adventure!  Camaraderie with the other people on the walk, both those in your party and those you meet along the way.  And just that feeling of time out, away from the daily grind.  Neil Morrissey and J J Chalmers both said that they were happy in their own skins and with their own lives, and that’s great, but is that how most people feel?  It’s hard to make sense of anything much when the leader of the Opposition can’t deal with prejudice within his own party, people are being poisoned by nerve agents in Salisbury, the President of the United States seems to have no morals at all and the captain of the Australian cricket team thinks it’s OK to cheat!   A lot of people are looking for something that’s a break from it all, and maybe a chance to think – and how fascinating that a tradition which goes back over a thousand years, and had been in decline for nearly five hundred years, has been revived as a way of trying to find that.

And you get cake …




What we’ve learnt from soap operas


Mark Fowler.  Hayley Cropper.  Colin Russell and Barry Clark.  Baby Ruairi McDonald.  A few people who’ve done a lot to change attitudes in British society, despite the fact that they don’t actually exist: they’re characters in soap operas.  Book Bub keeps sending me adverts for “historical fiction” which is set ridiculously recently, so, if it can do that, I can count soap opera storylines from the 1980s and early 1990s (ahem, and some considerably more recent ones) as being “set in the past”, right 😉 ?

Soap opera storylines are much in the news at the moment, amid concern that they’re becoming too dark and that soaps are no longer entertaining.  Controversial storylines in the last few weeks have included the male rape of David Platt in Coronation Street, and the acid attack on Ross Barton in Emmerdale, and the next one’s going to be a knife attack on Keegan Baker and Shakil Kazemi in EastEnders.

However, no-one seems all that bothered about the death of Abi Branning in EastEnders.  OK, that could be because the character was so annoying!   But it’s probably because the storyline – yet another character falling off the roof of the Queen Vic – was so OTT.  Everyone’s fed up to the back teeth of Pat Phelan’s serial killings in Coronation Street and the silly gangster storyline in EastEnders, but they don’t seem to be attracting the same level of coverage; and that has to be because they aren’t really part of real life.  As a general rule, serial killers do not prowl the streets of Manchester and Salford, East End pubs aren’t usually targeted by gangsters, helicopters do not crash on to wedding receptions in the Yorkshire Dales and schools do not blow up in Chester.  It’s the real life “dark” storylines that get people – because they remind us that these sorts of things are really going around us, and that we need to be aware of them.

A few of the subjects tackled over the past year or two.  I’ve already mentioned male rape – previously tackled by Hollyoaks – in Coronation Street, acid attacks in Emmerdale and the tragedy of a late miscarriage, just too early even to be classed as a stillbirth, in Coronation Street.  We’ve also had Paul Coker’s murder by homophobes in EastEnders, Linda Carter being raped by her brother-in-law in EastEnders, the grooming and sexual abuse of Bethany Platt in Coronation Street (a subject previously tackled by EastEnders, with Whitney Dean), Ashley Thomas’s early onset dementia in Emmerdale, Stacey Fowler (Slater)’s post-partum psychosis in EastEnders, Bex Fowler being targeted by school bullies in EastEnders and Holly Barton’s death from a drug overdose in Emmerdale.  Coming up is the attempted kidnap of Rana Nazir in Coronation Street as her Muslim family are unable to accept that she’s in a same sex relationship: the particular problems faced by LGBT people from certain cultural backgrounds have also been covered in EastEnders, with Syed Masood.  So too is the issue of eating disorders, with Cleo McQueen in Hollyoaks, which has been covered by Hollyoaks (Hannah Ashworth) previously, and also by Emmerdale (Priya Sharma)

So, yes, there do seem to be a lot of distressing storylines in soap operas at the moment.  It seems to be the same with most TV programmes you watch, these days.  Practically everything seems to be preceded by a warning that this programme contains scenes which viewers may find, and followed by the telephone number for a helpline.  But let’s remember that soaps have a lot to teach us.  Following the rape of David Platt in Coronation Street last week, the male rape charity Male Survivor reported a 1700% increase in calls.  Local charity Survivors Manchester, which worked with Coronation Street on the storyline, reported receiving double the usual number of daily referrals since the relevant episodes were aired.  That’s an awful lot of people who’ve been helped to speak out about their horrific ordeals, a subject which research has shown that it takes many survivors many years to talk about.  Yes, soap operas are that powerful.

Every time a soap opera covers a cancer storyline, there’s a huge upsurge in the number of people seeking screening and advice – notably with the Alma Halliwell (Sedgwick) cervical cancer storyline in Coronation Street and the breast cancer storylines with Sally Webster (now Metcalfe) in Coronation Street and Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders.  Within the last few months, there was a story all over the press about a man saying that Coronation Street had saved his life: he’d sought medical advice following the Robert Preston testicular storyline, and, as a result, had been successfully treated for the same condition.

So, whilst it’s not pleasant seeing our favourite characters go through the mill, it can be doing a huge amount to help someone who’s been through the same thing in real life.  And, yes, it could even be saving their life.  There are some things that we can’t do anything about, like the early onset dementia which led to Ashley Thomas’s death, or the loss of Steve and Michelle’s baby, but seeing these issues covered in soap operas raises awareness of them and helps people to understand how to try to cope with them and how to try to help relatives and friends affected by them.  It even tends to boost efforts for fundraising into research to try to find ways of prevention or cure in the future.

I think the “hard-hitting” storyline which did the most to change my generation’s attitudes was the Mark Fowler HIV storyline in EastEnders.  Mark was diagnosed as being HIV positive shortly before my sixteenth birthday, in 1991.  The government hadn’t made a very good job of its HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, quite honestly.  “Don’t Die Of Ignorance.”  That picture of the tombstone, which looked like some sort of memento mori from an outbreak of bubonic plague in the 1660s.  All right, it got everyone’s attention, but it also scared the hell out of people.  And, not helped by the infamous Section 28, there was a perception that it was mainly gay men who were at risk.

The Mark Fowler storyline portrayed a young man who had contracted HIV whilst in a steady relationship with an opposite sex partner.  We saw his father bleaching everything in the family home – not an inaccurate portrayal of beliefs at the time –and then learning and accepting that that was excessive, and the prejudice he faced from other characters, notably Peggy Mitchell, before they eventually accepted that they were wrong.  And we saw Mark leading a full life, until his eventual death about thirteen years later.  Mark Fowler did more to educate the people of Britain about HIV and AIDS than anything that the government ever did.   Even a better-planned government campaign doesn’t always work that well.  People aren’t always ready to accept what they’re told by the authorities.  And “personal and social” education lessons in school  … teachers are embarrassed, kids are embarrassed, some kid always decides to wind everyone up by asking awkward questions, everyone’s whispering and giggling, and some very strange (and untrue) rumours went round our school about a teacher demonstrating things with bananas.  Er, no.  It’s not always great.  But soap operas can really get the message through.  And they do.

Mark Fowler’s first girlfriend during the early days of the HIV storyline was Diane Butcher.   A year earlier, she’d been at the centre of a storyline about homelessness.  At the time, charities were saying that it had done more to raise awareness of the issue of teenage “runaways” and homelessness than anything since Cathy Come Home in 1966.  Homelessness is something that’s perhaps overdue for being covered again in a soap, but both Coronation Street (Anna Windass) and EastEnders (Denise Fox) have shown in recent years how hard-working characters can, due to redundancy or low pay, come to need the services of food banks, and how there should be no stigma attached to doing so: it’s the system that’s at fault, not the individuals.

Soap operas can also do a huge amount to reduce the prejudices against groups of people who are just living ordinary lives but who, for whatever reason, are not always accepted or understood by some members of society.  Both Emmerdale and EastEnders currently have Down’s Syndrome children amongst their characters – Leo Goskirk in Emmerdale and Janet Mitchell in EastEnders.  Both soaps have shown the issues faced by the children and their parents in terms of schooling.  And soaps have done a considerable amount to try to reduce prejudice against LGBT people.

Everyone knows about Colin and Barry in EastEnders, and Margaret and Beth in Brookside, because there was so much talk about those storylines at the time, but the first major soap storyline shown in Britain to involve a gay character was actually in Dynasty.  The glitzy American soaps of the late 1970s and 1980s are remembered for their crazily OTT storylines like Bobby Ewing coming back from the dead in Dallas, the Moldavian Massacre in Dynasty and Fallon Carrington Colby being kidnapped by aliens in The Colbys, but the big dramatic storyline at the end of the first series of Dynasty involved Blake Carrington attacking his son Steven’s boyfriend Ted Dinard because he couldn’t cope with the fact that Steven was gay.  And that was when Alexis first showed up.  Alexis, the most famous superbitch in soap history, showed her softer side in her complete support of Steven, one of the nice guys of the Carrington family – and, when Dynasty finally ended, Steven was living happily ever after with his boyfriend Bart Falmont, and Blake was OK about it.

Incidentally, Dynasty‘s often criticised for being about white wealth and privilege, but the critics forget that Blake had a mixed-race half-sister, Dominique Devereux.  That was a big deal in 1980s America.  And, of course, Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan in Dynasty and (when she’d stopped drinking) Sue Ellen Ewing in Dallas, not to mention Avril Rolfe and Jan Howard in Howards’ Way, all showed that women could be just as powerful in business as men were.  I went for my first ever job interview wearing a bright red jacket with gilt-edged buttons and shoulder pads.  I looked absolutely bloody ridiculous and, no, I didn’t get the job … but, hey, that jacket just showed that young women back in the day really were inspired by Alexis Colby!   Joan Collins rocked the look a lot better than I did, it does have to be said.  I sometimes wish I had the confidence to wear a bright red jacket now.  Maybe not.  They’re not really a thing these days, unless you’re Michael Portillo.

Anyway, back to the subject of LGBT storylines.  These days there are gay characters at the heart of the action in all the soap operas – Robert and Aaron in Emmerdale are particularly popular with viewers (even though Robert is a git and Aaron really deserves someone nicer!) – and the fact that they’re gay is not a big deal, and not usually the main focus of their storylines.  And, of course, that’s exactly as it should bet.  But it wasn’t always like that.  The Colin and Barry storyline in EastEnders in the mid-1980s was controversial at the time.  There was a fuss in some of the more right-wing newspapers when one of them kissed the other on the forehead!   And, as with Mark Fowler, a lot of nasty comments were also made by other characters – in this case, particularly Dot Cotton (later Branning).  But that changed.  The other characters came to accept Colin and Barry, and the storyline, and all the talk about it, did help to change attitudes generally.

The same was true of the very popular Hayley Cropper (neé Patterson), who first appeared in Coronation Street in 1998, the first transgender character in a British soap.  Shortly after Coronation Street showed Hayley Patterson and Roy Cropper’s blessing ceremony in 1999, which emphasised the legal problems faced by transgender people, the government set up a Parliamentary Working group to look into the issue of rights for transgender people.  OK, it’d probably be going overboard to say that that was because of Hayley, but her storyline certainly did a huge amount to raise awareness of the subject, and also to tackle prejudice against transgender people.  Apparently, the organisers of LGBT History Month named Hayley as one of the most famous LGBT people in history.  That’s pretty good going for someone who isn’t actually real!

Both Coronation Street (Gina Seddon) and EastEnders (Stacey Fowler) feature characters who have bipolar disorder, Emmerdale has shown Zak Dingle suffering a nervous breakdown, and I’ve already mentioned eating disorders.  A lot of work’s being done at the moment to try to improve attitudes towards those of us who suffer from mental health problems, but the message doesn’t always get through, and soap operas can do a lot to try to help with that.  And, at a time when prejudice against Muslims was on the increase because of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalist group, EastEnders showed a lovely episode in which Tamwar Masood explained to Nancy Carter that Islam was really a religion of peace.

I’m not saying that soap operas can change the world, that they can save the lives of everyone who’s got a serious illness, that they can help everyone who’s suffered a violent attack or that they can change the attitudes of everyone who’s prejudiced against others.  But, daft as it might sometimes seem, they do have a huge amount of power.  I’ve watched Coronation Street since I was born, EastEnders for over thirty years and Emmerdale for a good twenty years.  I know some of these characters better than I know most of my own family and friends!   When something happens to one of them, or one of them does something, it affects me.

No, I don’t want to see Pat Phelan going around murdering anyone else.  No, I don’t want to see any more gangsters in the Queen Vic.  And, yes, I would appreciate a bit more humour – and I’m talking about sensible storylines, not this ridiculous storyline with Gail Rodwell (or whatever Gail Tilsley goes as these days) getting messages from Richard Hillman from the other side.  And, please, please, stop splitting up all the happy couples!   It’s great that Cain and Moira are back together, and it’s great that Robert and Aaron are back together (even if Robert is a git …) but, please, get Tyrone and Fiz back together and get Billy and Honey back together!   Let’s have a bit more happiness.  I don’t think anyone, except, unfortunately, the scriptwriters, would argue with that!

But listen to what the charities who support male rape survivors are saying.  The David Platt storyline has really helped people.  And acid attacks are on the increase, and we all need to be aware of that.  Katie Piper has done a wonderful job in raising awareness of the subject, but Emmerdale can help too.  No, it’s not nice.  But a lot of things in life aren’t nice.  And, before Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells puts pen to paper, or finger to keyboard/telephone keypad, to complain about some of the current plots, maybe he or she should stop to think about the man who said that the Robert Preston testicular cancer storyline changed his life, or all the people who’ve contacted the Male Survivor charity since Josh Tucker’s attack on David Platt.  Soap operas are powerful.  They get us talking.  They can do a lot more than entertain, and, because they can, they’ve got to.



The Danish Queen by Lynda Andrews


This is very basic historical fiction, which reads like something that’s been taken from a textbook and turned into dialogue or brief narrative; but that sort of thing can be absolutely fine for a bit of light reading, especially when it’s going very cheap on Kindle download.  A lot of Jean Plaidy’s books are like that, and I loved those when I was in my teens and early twenties!   Lynda Andrews (I’m not quite sure why she’s rebranded herself from “Lyn” to “Lynda”), who usually writes light reading set in Liverpool between the wars, isn’t in the same league as Jean Plaidy, but her books aren’t bad, and not even Jean Plaidy’s managed to write a book about Anne of Denmark, who was queen during a pivotal period in British history but tends to be completely overlooked.

The historical accuracy of the book can’t, generally, be faulted.  Seeing as Arbella Stuart’s name is very irritatingly misspelt as “Arabella” and Beatrix Ruthven is referred to as “Beatrice”, I rather suspect that the author had been reading Agnes Strickland – although Agnes Strickland would never have referred to Elizabeth I as James I’s aunt, as Lynda Andrews rather bizarrely does, the one really major historical error in the text.   There are some other annoying spelling mistakes too – “Gowry” instead of “Gowrie” and (unless this is a Kindle thing?) the most horrendous mangling of both “Wriothesley” and “Kronborg”.  There’s also quite a bit missing, from major things like the witch hunts and the writing of the King James Bible to minor things like Anne managing to shoot dead one of James’s dogs.  Also, major events like the plot to put Arbella on the throne, the Overbury case and even the Gunpowder Plot get far less coverage than several court masques.  And the issue of whether or not Anne converted to Catholicism isn’t mentioned at all.

But it’s only a short book.  And, as long as you’re not expecting something too deep and meaningful, and as long as you haven’t paid more than the 99p Kindle sale price for it, it’s worth a go, simply because there has been so little written about Anne of Denmark.  She was the first Queen of the whole of Great Britain and, although obviously she was a queen consort rather than queen regnant, the first Queen of England after Elizabeth I and the first Queen of Scotland after Mary, Queen of Scots.   She also played an important part in promoting art and culture, especially the Royal Collection which has been in the news quite a lot recently – and she’s got a raw deal in what little has been written about her in the past, usually being dismissed as silly and frivolous when she was actually quite politically savvy and certainly quite a patron of the arts.  Historians, especially male historians, tend to be very negative about all the Stuart queens, one way or another. However, Anne does come across well in this book, which is nice.

It’s all too short and too quick, though.  The issue of her religion’s barely mentioned, as I said.  The issue of how she coped with James being bisexual is referred to, but only in dialogue: we don’t really get much sense of how she really felt about it.  OK, obviously the author can’t know that, but that’s the point of historical fiction: she could have tried to give more of an impression of how she imagined Anne would have felt.  Nor do we really get much sense of Anne’s grief at losing five of her seven children, including Henry, the hugely popular Prince of Wales who would surely have made a far better king than his younger brother, the future Charles I, was to do.  The author never really does more than skim the surface of how anyone feels.

Then there’s James.  We get to see the only really romantic episode of James’s life, when Anne was shipwrecked in Norway en route from Denmark to Scotland, and James sailed out there to meet him, and we get some sense of the ups and downs in their marriage, but the way he’s presented is very irritating because everything he says is in Scottish dialect/a Scottish accent.  It just about stops short of “Och aye the noo”!  OK, James would have spoken in a Scottish accent, but everyone speaks in some sort of accent, and it doesn’t always work very well in print.  Some authors, especially Victorian authors, manage it quite well, but it was absolutely ridiculous to have James doing all that Och aye the noo/Ma wee lassie stuff whilst everything said by Anne, who wasn’t even a native English speaker, was written in standard English spelling.

Having said all that, Anne deserves to be much better known that she is, and so the book’s worth reading because of that.  But it’s very short, and never really does more than skim the surface of what’s going on.




Great Indian Railway Journeys – BBC 2


Having watched Michael Portillo’s railway programmes from the off, I’m really chuffed (pun intended) that they’ve proved so successful. You wouldn’t believe that a series involving a garishly-dressed ex-politician going around on trains could be quite so entertaining, but it really is: he does an absolutely fantastic job.  Of course, it helps that he gets to go to such interesting places, and this time’s it’s India, with a copy of Bradshaw’s 1913 Handbook of Indian, Foreign and Colonial Travel.

Just as an aside, I’d quite like to see a programme about George Bradshaw himself, the man who, although he died sixty years before the publication of the 1913 guides, initiated the Bradshaw’s Guides, in 1839. He definitely sounds like my kind of person: he was born in Pendleton, was associated with the Anti Corn Law League, and did a lot of work in promoting education amongst the working-classes of Manchester and setting up soup kitchens for those in need.  Definitely deserves at least one episode about his own life!

Back to India. This first episode saw Michael travelling from Amritsar, home of the glorious Sikh Golden Temple, to Shimla (formerly known as Simla), which was the summer capital of the British Raj from 1864 to 1947.  All under beautiful blue skies!   The Golden Temple complex, which apparently received around 100,000 visitors a day, was absolutely stunning.  You rarely see a pool/lake at a religious site.  I suppose that’s because they’re usually in city centres.  What a beautiful complex – but, as Michael pointed out, the temple itself, for all that it was so gloriously golden, was actually quite small, and was reached by stepping down from the buildings on either side of it: despite being golden, it symbolised humility.  I’d never really thought of that before.  And it had an enormous free canteen, where all visitors could get a free meal.  I’ve come across places where pilgrims are supposed to get free meals, but the idea of providing free refreshments to all visitors, rather than directing them to tea rooms charging extortionate prices, was rather lovely.  I really liked that.

Of course, he couldn’t have gone to the Golden Temple without mentioning the horrific massacre which took place in the neighbouring Jallianwala Bagh garden in 1919, probably the most shameful moment in the history of the British Raj. I thought he might also have mentioned the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984, but, especially given their association with the assassination of Indira Gandhi, maybe that would have been too politically controversial.

Then it was on to Ludhiana – and he got a free cup of tea on the train. Yay!!  Free cups of tea all round, please.  Mind you, if it tastes like the disgusting apology for tea that Virgin Rail provide on the Manchester to London trains, maybe not!  Hopefully the stuff on Indian trains is better 🙂 . In Ludhiana, we got to see a more positive side of the legacy of the Raj – a medical school founded by a female British missionary doctor in the 1890s, with the aim of training women to be doctors and midwives at a time when female medical personnel in India were in very short supply and cultural taboos made it difficult for women to seek treatment from male medics.  I’m afraid I don’t have a particularly positive image of missionaries, because I find it hard not to think of them as being like St John Rivers in Jane Eyre – arrogant men who were convinced that their religion was better than everyone else’s and that it was their mission to go around trying to convert people – and so it was heartening to hear about someone who had made such a positive contribution to another country and culture.  It’s not something you often hear about, in anything about the Raj.  It’s usually all romances and culture clashes!

Next up was Ambala. The town in Haryana province, not the Indian sweet shop on the Curry Mile!  As he headed from the Punjab into Haryana province, Michael discussed the horrors of partition with an Indian historian.  The horrific tales of attacks on trains are well-known, but don’t get any less horrific with each additional time you hear about them.  The historian clearly took the view that Britain should have done more, but, as has been said before, things were in such a mess by 1947 that I just don’t know what the alternative was.  The time for action was long before then.  But what a tragedy that British rule ended and independence began amid all that bloodshed.  It’s all been said before, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Ambala looked like a shoppers’ paradise. And all the signs and adverts were in English!  There are plenty of stalls on Bury Market where you can take your pick of gorgeous Indian fabrics 🙂 , but you can’t just order an outfit and have it made to measure in a matter of a couple of hours, as Michael did in Ambala. I particularly liked the jacket.  Michael was laughing at himself over his penchant for bright colours.  I wish I had the nerve to wear them in England, like he does!   I’ve got a lovely Peruvian shawl that I bought – in my best GCSE Spanish – in Cusco, but I never wear it because I’d feel such a complete prat walking round town in something quite so bright!

His next stop was Chandigarh, which is now the capital of both Punjab state and Haryana state, but isn’t actually in either. This was certainly different: it was built in the 1950s, by a French-Swiss architect, and was designed to look modernistic and futuristic.  Clean, tidy and orderly – well, OK.  But it looked so soulless.  It made somewhere like Milton Keynes look like a centre of history and culture.  It was interesting, but … well, I want India to look Indian!  Like I want France to look French, Austria to look Austrian, etc etc.  Totally beside the point, but apparently more hamburgers than baguettes were sold in France last year.  Er, what’s that about?!  Whatever next 🙂 ?

He did do some dancing, though, just to liven things up. Finally came the climax of the journey – the famous train ride through the Himalayas from Kalka to Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh province … formerly, then known as Simla, the hill station which was the summer capital of the British Raj.   I really fancied that train ride until he mentioned that it took five hours.  And I bet you can’t guarantee getting a seat facing forward and by the window.  I was OK on the Bernina Express, but I’m not sure how I’d cope with five hours on a narrow gauge mountain railway, however many travel sickness tablets I took!

Anyway, it did look spectacular, and Michael clearly enjoyed it! And, as he said, it’s incredible to think that Simla was the administrative centre of the Raj from April to October for nearly 40 years before the railway was even built.  They were shlepping the entire paraphernalia of the administration of the British Raj up the Himalayas on elephants, carts drawn by bullocks, and palanquins.  One-fifth of the population of the planet were being ruled from this little town up in the hills, with nothing to link it even to the nearest decent-sized place but a mountain path.  It’s completely mad!  But it worked!  That’s even madder!  And, up there in the Himalayas, a lot of the buildings really did look like a corner of a foreign field (well, mountain) that was for ever England.

I’m not sure where else he’s going in this series, but I’ve always really fancied the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. I think it’s the thought of the tea plantations.  Plus I remember once seeing a TV programme about it, presented by the late, great, Victoria Wood, who got very excited over the fact that the oldest steam locomotives on the railway were built by Sharp, Stewart and Company, originally of Manchester.  That was so exactly what I would have done!   I think I do quite fancy the Kalka-Shimla trip as well, though.  And Amritsar.  Oh, it’s nice to see somewhere different!  I love the British, Continental and American Railway/Railroad Journey programmes, but this series is going to be a bit different; and it’s got off to a really good start.  Bring on the next episode!

Mary Magdalene


The Bible is a unique book which has been hugely influential in world culture; but, unfortunately, some people’s nasty-minded interpretations of it have been responsible for some very damaging attitudes over the centuries. They’ve been used to attack Jewish people (especially at this time of year), LGBT people, black people, mixed race couples and, perhaps above all, women. The negative view of women, in terms of the Bible, is really due to the story of Eve. 50% of the world’s population being viewed as inferior because of a story about a snake and an apple – seriously! However, Eve doesn’t really have that bad an image. Come to that, nor does Cain, even though the story says that he murdered his brother!   People never talk much about Cain. Nope – the two Biblical figures who really, really cop for abuse are Judas and Mary Magdalene. Judas – OK, he’s the bloke who betrayed his mate. But why Mary Magdalene?

Well, it’s the idea of women as either virgins or whores. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been cast as the Virgin Mother, even though the Bible probably never said that and it’s likely to be due at best to an error in translation and at worst to men wanting to make out that she couldn’t be without sin otherwise. And Mary Magdalene, the woman who’d “had so many men before, in very many ways”. All right, that’s not the Bible, that’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the fact that even he goes with the traditional image of Mary Magdalene says a lot. Incidentally, if a bloke had “had so many women before, in very many ways,” people’d be clapping him on the back. What about both David and Solomon? How many wives and girlfriends did they have?!   Yet they’re both big heroes! There’s a meme doing the rounds on Facebook saying that a woman who performed the miracles Jesus is supposed to have performed would probably have been condemned as a witch. It’s not wrong.

OK, back to Mary Magdalene. There’s an awful lot of confusion about her, partly due to the fact that up to a third of women in Judaea and Samaria in New Testament times were called Mary/Miriam/Mariam. There’s Mary Magdalene. There’s Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus who was raised from the dead). And there’s an anonymous “sinner” with an alabaster jar. Pope Gregory the Great, in the 6th century AD, decided that they were one and the same person. This idea’s come down the centuries in Catholicism – although it hasn’t in Orthodoxy, and it’s waned in Protestantism. So Mary Magdalene has been labelled a sinner – when the Bible doesn’t say that at all.

And another thing.   The Bible describes the alabaster jar woman, whoever she was, as a sinner. It does not describe her as a prostitute. There are a lot of different types of sins. If a man was described as being a sinner, it would probably be assumed that he was a cheat, or a liar. Maybe even a murderer. But, when it’s a woman, it’s assumed that she’s a prostitute. Well, that says it all, doesn’t it? And, even if she was a prostitute, why does that have to make her a sinner?   Emmerdale have just run a storyline about a woman who was forced into prostitution by financial necessity. And what about all these poor women – and men, for that matter – who are forced into prostitution by human traffickers? People can be very judgemental, and the worst of them are often the people who claim that their views are supported by the Bible. Or, rather, their strange interpretations of the Bible. And Mary Magdalene’s been on the receiving end of this for centuries.

So, who really was Mary Magdalene? Well, we don’t know. Let’s face it, we have no idea if many of the people in the Bible even existed at all. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare!   It contains some of the best-known stories of all time, featuring some of the best-known figures of all time, but we have no idea if most of it really happened or if most of them really existed. But I think most people accept that Jesus was a real person, and that the other people mentioned in the Gospels were real people as well. So,who was Mary Madgalene? Well, thanks to Dan Brown, we all know the version of events in which Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife. That story’s been around for centuries – incidentally, I first came across it in Elizabeth Chadwick’s Daughters of the Grail, when I was a teenager, well before The Da Vinci Code – and the Gnostic Gospels do refer to her as the “koinonos” of Jesus – a word that can mean companion, or partner/wife. It’s a fascinating idea. But could it really, however many conspiracy theories you believe in, have been hushed up? And it just relegates her to the status of the main male character’s wife. So it’s just another patriarchal view of things.

I rather like the version of her life presented by Margaret George in Mary, Called Magdalene, in which she’s a wealthy widow, from Magdala (in the Galilee area), who becomes a disciple and apostle of Jesus, like Peter, Andrew, James et al. No need for a woman to be someone’s wife/girlfriend in order to be important. Margaret George tried hard to explain and justify her view, pointing out that a widow would have had more freedom than a single woman, and that someone with money would have been more likely to have had influence.

This film, however, doesn’t really do anything to convince the viewer why or even that its version of events is a realistic suggestion. All right, films don’t really have forewords or afterwords, but … well, you can put notes up on screen!   It just didn’t try very hard with anything. Oh, what a shame!   It’s two weeks before Easter and Passover (even though the weather seems to think it’s Christmas), so it’s a time of year when people might be thinking about Bible stories. And it’s certainly a time when people are thinking about the role of women in society. So I was really up for being hit with what this film was supposed to be (oh dear, that was the most appalling grammar!!), the idea of Mary Magdalene as a leading disciple and apostle, proving that everyone who tries to use the Bible to argue that women are inferior to men is talking rubbish. And it just didn’t happen, because the film just wasn’t very good.

I’m not convinced that whoever wrote the script had even read the relevant bits of the Bible. Honestly, I think they’d got the Resurrection mixed up with Dallas. Mary Magdalene fell asleep thinking that Jesus was dead, and then woke up to find him there, alive and well. OK, he wasn’t in the shower, but there was a definite sense of Bobby Ewing about it, I’m telling you. This was after everyone had walked into Jerusalem. No!! There’s supposed to be a donkey! Lazarus was raised from the dead in Cana. Excuse me? That bit’s supposed to happen in Bethany. The Cana miracle’s the one where the water gets turned into wine. They missed that bit out completely. Boo!! That and the feeding the five thousand (which got missed out as well) are the best miracles in the whole Bible! OK, miss some bits out, but don’t set the bits you do include in the wrong places.

The whole thing was just wrong. People were starving to death because of the Romans. What?? The Romans do get off ridiculously lightly when it comes to interpretations of the New Testament, largely because the people who decided which bits to include were scared of narking the Roman authorities – understandably so – but where do people starving to death (in caves!) come into it?

As for Jesus, he just seemed to be everyone else’s pawn. Joaquin Phoenix is the same age as me, but I still think of him as being about 15 … OK, that’s beside the point, but, in this, he looked far older than he really is, so he looked too old to be Jesus. That didn’t help. But it wouldn’t have mattered if Jesus had come across as being a charismatic leader, drawing people to him. Instead, he was portrayed as a vague hippy-trippy New Age type, whilst Peter, Luke and the others were the ones who were really running the show. The idea seemed to be that they wanted to overthrow the Romans, and were hoping that Jesus, by pulling off a few spectacular miracles, would persuade everyone else to join up with them so that they could overthrow the Romans. What?? It was like … I don’t know, some episode in medieval history with people using a potential puppet king or a pretender to try to gain power.

And it didn’t follow. OK, you can only fit so much in to a couple of hours, but they’d just thrown in odd bits, and not fitted them together. Jesus and co arrived in Jerusalem. On foot, no donkeys. At this point, there had been no suggestion that the authorities were even aware of their existence. Jesus had a go at the moneylenders, but, apart from a few Roman centurions lurking in the background, no-one did anything except start shouting as if they were at a football match. Then it was the Last Supper. Well, a group of people sat on the floor having their tea. Then you saw Judas kiss Jesus on the cheek in what was presumably meant to be the Garden of Gethsemane. Then Judas told Mary Magdalene that he’d turned Jesus in. But it didn’t make sense, because the film hadn’t shown any reason for the authorities to be interested in him, apart from a lot of football chants over the moneylenders. And Judas said he’d done it because Jesus was annoying him by not trying hard enough to win support, and he was hoping it’d give him a kick up the backside. What?? Oh, and the thirty pieces of silver were never even mentioned. Then, in the next scene, Jesus was staggering up the hill with the crucifix and the crown of thorns. No-one washing their hands. No trial. No nothing. And why would there even have been a trial, when all that had happened was a lot of chanting because Jesus had shouted at the moneylenders?

So what did it say about Mary Magdalene, seeing as the film was meant to be about her? Well, it said that she was from Magdala, which was fair enough. And it showed her as a young woman whose father was trying to marry her off to a widower with several kids. She wasn’t keen on the idea. It wasn’t very clear whether this was because of some deep and meaningful desire to do something else with her life or just because she didn’t fancy the widower. So her family claimed that she was possessed by demons and needed to be exorcised. Oh dear. Shouldn’t she have been the one who wanted the demons casting out? And Jesus said that she didn’t have any demons. She then went off with him and the others, and her family weren’t very pleased.

They then went to Cana – without the water being turned into wine. Mary had told Jesus that the women of Magdala were afraid to follow him. There were no other women in the group. Jesus then decided he was going to do a ladies-only sermon, so he went to where the women of Cana were doing the laundry, and delivered a sermon to them all. They were so impressed that they all went off to be baptised. It wasn’t clear what happened to the laundry. Mary and Peter then went off together, and found the aforementioned people starving in the caves. Peter wanted to leave them, and go off and find some people who might help overthrow the Romans, but Mary persuaded him that they needed to stay and help. Then (see, I said it didn’t follow), Mary, the mother of Jesus, turned up, and she and Mary Magdalene had a nice girly chat about how Jesus had been a really sweet little boy who’d got upset when other kids picked on him, and how Mary Magdalene loved him but accepted that it wasn’t going to happen. And then it was on to going into Jerusalem with no donkey and shouting at the moneylenders. It just didn’t flow at all!   If you didn’t know the story, you wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on.

But I think it was meant to be a feminist version of things. I don’t know what happened to the women in Cana – presumably, once they’d been baptised, they went back to finish off their washing – but, when Mary Magdalene went off to report the Bobby Ewing moment to the men, they all got huffy and said that they didn’t understand why Jesus had chosen to make her the number one apostle.

So what happened next?  Well, they all started whingeing. They said that they didn’t get how this could be Kingdom Come, because nothing had happened. The world had not suddenly been put to rights. There was no justice for the poor. Everything was still basically as crap as it had been before. And this, right at the end, was actually the best bit of the film, depressing at it was, because it was just so true. It’s always supposed to get better, isn’t it? Stage a revolution and sweep away the dictators … and what do you get? More dictators, usually. Lose the autocratic tsars, and get Lenin and Stalin instead. Lose the Soviet system, and get Vladimir Putin instead. Lose the French ancien regime, and get the Terror instead. Fight a war to end all wars, and get another one barely twenty years later … and mass poverty in between. Call for an Arab Spring, and end up with wars and refugees all over the Middle East instead: the word “exodus” is being used an awful lot at the moment – and I don’t mean because it’s two weeks before Passover and people are talking about the story of Moses.

How bloody miserable!  But the idea was that things aren’t going to change by some sort of miracle, and we’re going to have to change them ourselves.  That is a pretty radical interpretation of the Easter story.  And not one of the reviews I’ve seen in the press have picked up on this, because they’ve all been entirely focused on whether or not Mary Magdalene was a prostitute!  Well, that says a lot, doesn’t it?

I’m not entirely sure what this film was trying to say.   It was so badly put together that it was very hard to tell. But the way I took the bit at the end was that people need to try to change things.   And that’s relevant anywhere and everywhere.  It’s a very, very good point.

It isn’t a very good film, though.   If you want a good account of the possible life of Mary Magdalene, try the Margaret George book instead.

And, seeing as it is only two weeks until Easter and Passover, if we could perhaps lose the snow, and do spring instead?  You know – lambs, daffodils, all that sort of thing.  Rebirth and renewal.  Ma Nature being lyrical with her yearly miracle.  That would actually be better than water being turned into wine!!   Happy spring festivities!


Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2


Hooray, I am actually not the only person in Britain who thinks that Ukraine is a fascinating place to visit, although when I went it was ten years ago and there wasn’t a war going on.  I went from Odessa to Kyiv: Michael Portillo, dressed in Ukrainian blue and yellow in the Ukrainian sunshine, did it the other way round, going from Kyiv to Odessa, and also visiting Lviv which I haven’t yet been to but would love to see, in this hour-long special which was fascinating even if it did present Ukrainian history from a rather biased Ukrainian-only viewpoint.

I’m rather hoping that the fact that the Champions League final is in Kyiv this year, and all the marketing stuff says “Kyiv”, the transliteration of the city’s Ukrainian name, might finally stop people from spelling it “Kiev”, the transliteration of the city’s Russian name!  And, yes, I know that I’ve just typed “Odessa”, whereas in transliterated Ukrainian it would be “Odesa”, but most people in Odessa speak Russian.  And then there’s Lviv, also known as Lvov (in Russian), Lwow (in Polish) and Lemberg (in German).  Oh, and it’s “Ukraine”, not “the Ukraine” – something else that sometimes needs to be pointed out.  It’s a country, not a region!   Gloriously confusing, isn’t it 🙂 ?

I wanted to see Kyiv because it was the centre of Kievan Rus, the first East Slavic state.  Well, more of a confederation of tribes.  And ruled over by the descendants of Vikings.  See, I said it was gloriously confusing J .  It emerged in the 9th century AD, but began disintegrating by the 11th century and eventually collapsed amid the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.  When another strong East Slavic state finally began to form, in the late 14th and 15th centuries, this time it was under the leadership of Muscovy, with the state later becoming known as Russia, and centred on Moscow.

By that time, Kyiv, and most of the rest of what’s now Ukraine and Belarus, had fallen under the rule of Lithuania – from 1569, Poland-Lithuania.  After the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the 1640s, Left Bank (Eastern) Ukraine came under Russian rule.  Right Bank Ukraine remained under Polish-Lithuanian rule until the Polish Partitions of 1772, 1793 and 1795, whereupon it also became part of the Russian Empire.  That was apart from Lviv and the rest of Galicia, which came under the rule of Austria, and then, after the First World War, part of Poland … and then became part of Soviet Ukraine after the Second World War.  The Black Sea area of Ukraine, meanwhile, was part of the Ottoman Empire until it was conquered by Catherine the Great in the war of 1787-1792, with the port of Odessa being founded there in 1794.  Crystal clear, all that, isn’t it 🙂 ?  I so love Ukrainian history.

Moscow is the Third Rome, following the fall of Constantinople 😉 , but it’s Kyiv which is the cradle of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy (all a bit messy these days, with different patriarchates within Ukraine), following Prince Vladimir (OK, Volodymyr, if you’re being Ukrainian)’s decision to convert to Orthodoxy in 988.  The story is that he decided to convert himself and his people to AN major religion, and thought about Islam but didn’t fancy it because of the booze ban.  I like that story, so I was very glad that Michael mentioned it.  Very Russian/Ukrainian!  St Sophia’s Cathedral, built in the early 11th century, was the main place I wanted to see in Kyiv and the first place Michael visited, and it is glorious.  Sadly, it hasn’t been a working cathedral since the Revolution, but at least the Communists didn’t destroy it as they destroyed so many other beautiful, historic places of worship – including 80% of churches in Ukraine.

I got quite excited, seeing the cathedral again.  So Byzantine.  So beautiful.  I love Orthodox churches!  And my favourite Catholic cathedral is St Mark’s in Venice, because it looks Orthodox.  Michael – via the metro system, stopping at one of those stunning metro stations you often find in former Eastern Bloc states – also visited the Pechersk Lavra monastery complex, closed during the communist era but now operational again, which was also just as beautiful as I remembered it.  He saw some of the relics of the saints close up: I’m quite glad I didn’t do that.  I know some people are really into relics, and that relics even go on tour sometimes, but they’re not really my thing.  Each to their own.  Michael seemed quite impressed by them.  Being a bloke, he was OK to go bare-headed.  Headscarves (I’ve got a nice silky one!) for ladies.  Orthodox churches in most places aren’t so bothered these days, but Russia and Ukraine are both still quite strict in that department.   And the music!   Orthodox choral music is amazing.  And there’s lots of it.  Religious services, in any religion, are generally very boring.  So, the more music, the better!

Michael met up with two historians during his time in Kyiv, and they discussed this whole difficult issue of whose heritage Kievan Rus is.  The historians insisted that Russian wanted to recreate Kievan Rus, although he did point out that the Crimean issue was also about access to the Black Sea.  Michael, to be fair, pointed out that Crimea is actually mainly Russian-speaking, although he didn’t say out loud that most people in Crimea want to be ruled by Russia.  Neither of them pointed out that Crimea was never part of Kievan Rus.  Nor did they mention the Left Bank/Right Bank issue and the fact that, as a result, Left Bank Ukraine has far closer cultural ties to Russia than Right Bank Ukraine was.  Everyone seemed very keen to present Ukraine as being united.  It isn’t.  All countries have regional divides.  As for the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy issue, although I think Moscow has long been regarded as the Holy City of Russian Orthodoxy – well, yes, there certainly is that, and there’s the general Slavophile issue.  There was talk when the Soviet Union collapsed of creating a union between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.   It’s complicated.  Ukraine’s very complicated!

Going back to St Sophia’s, the only thing I didn’t like was the enormous statue of the aforementioned Khmelnytsky stood very close to it, and my guidebook said that a lot of Western visitors familiar with Ukrainian history feel like that.  The Cossacks have a mixed reputation: the Khmelytsky Massacres are one of the main reasons for that, and the pogroms of the late Tsarist period are the other.  The other side of it is the Cossacks’ reputation for bravery and superb horsemanship, and the general romantic and dramatic image which they’ve got, and that does live on.  We went to an exhibition of Cossack riding and dancing, and it was great.  And the rather glamorous-looking blokes were very happy to pose for photos with tourists!

Michael visited a “living history” Cossack museum, and dressed up as a Cossack, and it was all very nice … but the woman there didn’t half come out with a biased view of things.   Cossacks are all about Ukrainian identity and defending Ukraine against outsiders, and Ukraine looks to the Cossacks for its identity, apparently.  Well, to be fair, the trip I went on was advertised as “Ukraine: Land of the Cossacks”.  But there are Cossacks in Russia too!  And what about all the Cossacks, from both Russia and Ukraine, who fought for the Russian Empire?  Anglo-Russian relations being much in the news at the moment, what about all the Cossack involvement in the Crimean War, and the Great Game?  Oh dear.  I appreciate that a country that’s only very recently become independent wants to present its history in a way that works with nationalism, but I thought it went a bit too far.   (Khmelnytsky and the fact that he’s a big hero in Ukrainian history were not mentioned.)

Michael then spoke to a few locals about their views on Ukraine being an independent state.  OK, he only asked a few people, and their views may not have been representative, but it was interesting that the younger people were wholly in favour of independence and the older people less so.   And, as he said, we don’t know how it’s all going to pan out.  The possibility of EU membership wasn’t mentioned, but that’s certainly a big issue.  Oh, and he spoke to some bodybuilders as well.  I don’t know anything about bodybuilding: I am far too unfit for that!

Next up, Lviv – which looked lovely.  In a very Mitteleuropean sort of way, and there seemed to be a lot of posters in the Latin alphabet rather than Cyrillic. We saw a shot of a Roman Catholic cathedral.  Weirdly, there was not one mention of the Greek Catholic church.  (I would say “the Uniate church”, but apparently that term’s considered offensive.)  I’m rather confused about that.  I even wondered if maybe the cathedral was Greek Catholic, and the BBC’d got confused!  It’s much the biggest religious denomination in Lviv.  Most of the Ukrainian community in North Manchester is of Western Ukrainian heritage, and the Ukrainian church near me is Greek Catholic … er, which is totally irrelevant.  Having said which, the one in South Manchester’s Orthodox.  Which is also irrelevant.   Sorry!  Back to the point!!

According to Michael, Lviv seemed like “the cradle of Ukrainian patriotism”.   He went to a bar where people were doing (in a jokey way, I hope!) a lot of “down with the Muscovites” stuff.  He listened to a choir – whose members, young and older alike, spoke English impressively well. He visited a library, where he heard about the life and work of the great Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko (who came from central Ukraine, nowhere near Lviv!).  That was fine.  I’m certainly not knocking patriotism, and I get very annoyed when people do.  But not one reference was made to the fact that Lviv was under Polish rule in the inter-war period, or of the large numbers of Poles expelled from there after the Second World War … most of whom moved to Wroclaw (formerly Breslau), to replace the Germans expelled from there!   It was all about Ukrainian nationalism.  As I said, I’m not knocking that, but it’s quite worrying when history becomes a tool of nationalism to such an extent that it’s not presented accurately.

Then on to Odessa.  By train, obviously … which avoided the problem everyone in my group had, when all our luggage was mislaid and we had to deal with the Odessa airport lost luggage department, which was like some sort of Cold War nightmare.   We did get our luggage the next day, which, bearing in mind how inefficient the airport staff were, was a bloody miracle!  Anyway.  Nice pictures on the famous Potemkin steps, featured in the Eisenstein film about the 1905 mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin.  Like the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917, what actually happened really wasn’t much like it appeared in the Eisenstein film, but still!   They’re supposed to be called the Pimorsky Steps (their pre-Soviet name) now, but I don’t think anyone calls them that.

With Odessa, hooray, it was not all about Ukrainian nationalism!  It was acknowledged that the city was founded by Catherine the Great (the German-born Russian empress!), although the conquest of the area from the Ottomans wasn’t really mentioned, and that Odessa’s first mayor, who had a huge influence on the city, was a Frenchman, the Duc de Richelieu (a direct descendant of the brother of Cardinal Richelieu, by the way).

Whilst Ukrainian Greek Catholics still failed to get a mention, Ukrainian Jews were the main focus of the visit to Odessa.  Ukraine has played a huge part in Jewish history and culture, and Odessa is one of the great cities in Jewish history.  No, it wasn’t a great centre of Jewish learning, like Vilnius and Warsaw, and Cordoba before them, were, and it didn’t produce great scientists who happened to be Jewish, like Vienna did, and it most certainly isn’t New York.  Of all the waffles I’ve ever written, the one that’s had the most views is the one about Downton Abbey’s misrepresentation of the Odessa pogroms … although, to be fair, that’s because people are interested in Downton Abbey, not because they’re interested in Odessa 🙂 .

Anyway, focusing on more positive things, around a third of the population of Odessa was Jewish in both late Tsarist times and (despite the large-scale emigration after the 1905 pogrom) early Soviet times, and many of those people were very important in politics, economics and the press.  Trotsky , whose parents seem to have identified as being Jewish even though they weren’t religious, attended school in Odessa. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Zionist leader who organised the Jewish Legion which fought alongside the British Army in (what was then) Palestine during the First World War, came from Odessa.  So, as Michael mentioned, did the author Isaac Babel; and amongst those who emigrated after the events of 1905 were the grandparents of Steven Spielberg and the grandparents of Bob Dylan.  There are also some brilliant stories about Jewish “humane gangsters” in Odessa – notably Mishka Yaponchik, Odessa’s answer to Robin Hood.  Far more interesting than all that religious studying that went on in Warsaw and Vilnius!

Then, in 1941, the Nazis and their Romanian allies – and it was the Romanians more than the Germans – murdered over 100,000 members of Odessa’s Jewish community.  And it was difficult to practise any religion in post-war Soviet times, and it’s only recently that Jewish religious and cultural life in Odessa has begun to flourish again – but it really is flourishing again now.  Michael visited the Great Synagogue in Odessa, which our tour group also went to see.  I thought it was a shame that there were no women in these scenes, but we got some lovely shots of the inside of the synagogue, and an interesting interview with its London-born rabbi about the revival of Jewish religion and culture in Ukraine – just as we’d seen the revival of Orthodox religion and culture in the scenes in Kyiv.

When I went, we got shown round the synagogue’s kosher food shop as well.  Being rather more interested in food than religion, I quite enjoyed that 🙂 .  Whilst my local Tesco has a larger selection of kosher food than they had there, it seemed such a big thing for the Jewish community of Odessa than they had this kosher food shop at all, after everything that’d happened, and so it was good to see it.  It’s a whole community complex: there’s a kindergarten there as well, although obviously the BBC couldn’t have filmed little kids.   It was also interesting to see that some of the men were in Orthodox Jewish clothing, and sporting long beards, whereas others were in Western clothing: it’d be unusual to see the two groups together in a synagogue in most countries.

Most of this programme was about the revival of cultural life which was repressed during the communist era.  There were many good reasons for the 1917 Revolution, but what followed was horrific.  It’s time to move on – and, in some ways, to move back.

And then he finished up with a mud bath!  The Black Sea area’s great.  Ukraine’s a fascinating country, and I hope so much that some sort of lasting peace can be reached there.







Civilisations – BBC 2


According to Simon Schama, women with fat backsides are “symbols of archaic spirituality”.  I’ve been called a lot of things in my time, but I’ve never been called a symbol of archaic spirituality before: I rather like that idea.  Unfortunately, I think he was only talking in terms of statues of earth mother goddesses from around 35,000 BC.  Then he moved on to a later statue, and said that this represented the “dawn of the idea of beauty”.  Needless to say, the “idea of beauty” statue did not have a fat bum.  Typical.  Boo!!

I wasn’t born until several years after the 1969 “Civilisation” series, and have never seen it, but I gather that that was very Eurocentric and that this one is very worthily trying to show art history in terms of worldwide civilisations.  Next week’s episode is going to include the Terracotta Warriors, which I was lucky enough to visit last year – when, despite having a first class degree in history, I knew embarrassingly little about Chinese history prior to the Opium Wars, and had to start pretty much from scratch in reading up on it.  We do still tend to learn things from a Eurocentric viewpoint, so kudos to the BBC for trying to do this differently.  “Worthily” can often be a synonym for “boringly”, but this actually wasn’t bad at all.  Simon Schama is great, and Mary Beard and David Olusoga, who’ll be presenting some of the other episodes, are great too: they’re all enthusiastic and knowledgeable without being either patronising or over-bouncy.  The one big snag was that, because they are trying to cover so much, it was quite bitty and jumped around a lot.  We got bits about lots of things, rather than a lot about anything.  But you can only fit so much into an hour-long episode.

It started off extremely movingly, talking about the brutal murder of Khaled al-Asaad, the elderly curator of Palmyra, by Islamic State after he refused to tell them where he’d hidden some of the irreplaceable artefacts from the ancient city.  That was really emotional, as were the pictures of the destruction of Palmyra.  IS are not the first people to carry out horrific cultural vandalism in the name of either politics or religion, and sadly they probably won’t be the last, and the point made was that “When its opposite shows up, we know what civilisation is”.

After that, we got all sorts of different things.  Some of the civilisations you would have expected to be mentioned, notably ancient Egypt, never got a look in, but I assume they’re going to feature in later episodes.  Even so, there were so may different things that it wasn’t easy to keep up, but they were all very impressive.  Ancient paintings on the walls of caves in Spain, Paleolithic statues (with or without fat bottoms), the development of writing in Ur, the development of “social art” by the Minoans, the depiction of Greek warriors in Mycenae, the art of ancient China, the stunning architecture of Petra, and the art and architecture of the Mayans.  And the actual pictures, especially of Petra and the Spanish cave paintings, were superb.

It wasn’t just art.  We were told about the importance of irrigation in early Middle Eastern cultures, the role of trade in the development and decline of Petra, and we got an interview with a descendant of the Mayans (and I actually understood quite a bit of the Spanish, hooray!), and it was pointed out that the depictions of ancient Greek art predated Homer’s epics by 700 years.   There really was a lot of genuinely interesting stuff in it, but it wasn’t particularly coherent – but I don’t know how you can be coherent when you’re trying to cover the whole world, and most of what you’re covering happened at a time when there was no contact between the different civilisations involved.   And I like the idea of being a symbol of archaic spirituality.  I shall remember that line 🙂 .



Secrets of the National Trust – Channel 4


This was a cracking start to the new series, with practically the whole of the first episode focusing on one of my favourite National Trust properties, Hardwick Hall, and on one of my favourite historical figures, Bess of Hardwick.  It was a shame that they didn’t show the lovely tearoom, where (if you can get in before the horrendous queues, caused by the fact that the food ordering point is actually at the till, gah!) you can enjoy a pot of tea and a jam and cream scone with a lovely view of the surrounding countryside, but it was great to see Alan Titchmarsh concentrating largely on the actual history of the place.

I do appreciate that the National Trust feels the need to appeal to families with young children, but it can be a little frustrating when any special event at weekends or on Bank Holidays seems to be aimed at under 8s.  Having said which, Hardwick Hall is pretty good at having exhibitions which cover historical topics and are aimed at adults.  No offence to under 8s … used to be one myself 🙂 .

The wonderful Bess of Hardwick rose from being minor gentry to being the second richest woman in Elizabethan England, behind (obviously!) only Queen Elizabeth I herself, and was responsible for the building of both Hardwick Old Hall (which belongs to English Heritage), on the site of the manor house in which she was born, and, a few hundred yards away, Hardwick Hall itself – which is spectacular, with loads and loads of windows to show how wealthy she was!   Stainsby Mill, also on the Hardwick Hall estate and also owned by the National Trust, was shown as well, although they didn’t show the old quarries, the sheep, the fishing ponds … it’s a very big place!

In addition to Bess, the programme also went into the very sad story of her granddaughter Arbella Stuart, one of the many female descendants of Henry VII whose lives were spoilt by their closeness to the throne amid all the uncertainty over the succession between the death of Henry VII in 1507 and … I was going to say “the accession of James I in 1603” but, in Arbella’s case, it went on into the reign of James I.  She was the granddaughter of Bess of Hardwick, and the great-granddaughter of Margaret Tudor – or, to put it another way, the half first cousin (is that expression correct?!) of Mary, Queen of Scots.  So she was one of the main candidates to succeed Elizabeth, and spent most of her childhood and young adulthood at Hardwick Hall.  Then she married William Seymour, a grandson of Lady Katherine Grey (sister of Lady Jane Grey), doubling up their claims to the throne.  James had them imprisoned, and they tried to escape, but, whilst William made it to Flanders, she was captured and sent back to the Tower … where she died a few years later, partly due to refusing to eat.  William left her to it.  All right, I don’t suppose getting himself locked up as well would have helped, but I still think of him as a bit of a rotter.

So, we had the inspirational story of Bess, and the sad story of Arbella.  There was a bit of talk about practical stuff like, er, cleaning the floor, but it was mostly history.  Good!  History is what we like … well, preferably accompanied by pots of tea and jam and cream scones, obviously.  And gardens – the National Trust is very good on gardens.  Lots of flowers!

I had an e-mail from the National Trust yesterday, with lovely pictures of lambs and daffodils in it.  Chirk Castle, Sizergh Castle and Biddulph Grange are my favourite National Trust properties for daffodils, and Chirk, Sizergh and Tatton Park tend to be pretty good for lambs.  Bring it on!  Enough snow now.  There are a lot of fantastic National Trust properties, and, whilst I’m not sure that this Channel 4 series really reveals any “secrets”, it does highlight the main features of some of the properties and it makes for very pleasant watching.